By Barry Janoff
December 6, 2012: Bo turned 50 on Nov. 30.
Not musician Bo Diddley (who died in 2008 at the age of 80) or actress Bo Derek (who is 56), but Vincent "Bo" Jackson, arguably the greatest two-sport pro athlete in history.
That particular bit of news might make people who watched Jackson in action — and who also remember when Nike's "Bo Knows" campaign was all the rage — feel a bit old, especially coupled with the knowledge that he has been retired from baseball for 18 years and last carried a football on an NFL field 22 years ago.
ESPN will commemorate Jackson's half-century birthday and explore the impact he had on sports with You Don't Know Bo, which will premiere Dec. 8 as part of the 30 for 30 Series. Which means that fans who watched him, a younger generation of people who did not see him on the field and those people who have never even heard of him — and there are of them in that latter group, as Jackson himself admits — will get to replay some of the feats that highlighted his career.
"My three kids, I think they were eight, six and four [at the time], they didn’t realize that Daddy was Bo Jackson until they saw Daddy get thrown out of a baseball game in Chicago [when] I kind of lost it and threw a garbage can, bats and a bubble gum tray out on the field," laughed Jackson during a media conference to support the ESPN film. "So it really doesn’t bother me that people don’t know who I am."
Actually, said Jackson, "It’s kind of nice in a way."
After his pro career ended, he went on to become a successful businessman and investor, dabbled in acting, wrote an autobiography, became aligned with several charities and in 1995 earned his bachelor of science degree from Auburn, where in 1986 he won the Heisman Trophy.
Among the things that Jackson does not do these days is watch football. But he does follow the careers of Cam Newton (who won the 2010 Heisman Trophy at Auburn) and Robert Griffin III.
"I seldom watch football [unless] I see it on the news [or] my wife physically makes me watch the game with her," he admitted. "[But] I try to keep up with what Cam Newton is doing, and I keep up with what RG3 is doing. I’m a fan of both of these young men. I think they are two of the most talented, most dangerous players in the NFL. If they can stay healthy, they will set a lot of records."
Jackson's MLB career as an outfielder/designated hitter ran from 1986-1994 (including a year away due to hip-replacement surgery and rehab), with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox and California (now Los Angeles) Angels. His NFL career as a running back was even shorter, four seasons (1987-1990) with the then Los Angeles Raiders.
What made Jackson so special is that his two pro careers overlapped for three years, and not in a small way. Playing full-time in both leagues, he was an MLB All-Star and an NFL All-Pro.
In recent sports history, only Deion Sanders comes close. His baseball and football career ran concurrently for eight years (1989-1995, 1997, 2001). But he played less baseball toward the end of his MLB tenure before focusing solely on the NFL, where he played cornerback through 2005 and, in 2011, was inducted Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Brian Jordan played three years in the NFL (1989-91) then focused full-time on his 14-year MLB career. And in the early 1900s, Jim Thorpe played baseball and football and in 1912 won two Olympic gold medals in track and field.
"You won't see that again," said John Dahl, executive producer for ESPN Films. "There are athletes — I'm thinking of LeBron James. You think he could [play] football as a tight end [in addition to his NBA career]. But I'm just not sure any athlete is willing to put their body through what Bo did, [especially] when you look a a grueling sport like the NFL and then playing another sport."
Given that it has been done so rarely, you might think that it would be time, focus, physical demands or pressure that weighed heaviest on Jackson. You would be wrong.
"The hardest thing about playing two sports at such a high level was going to the supermarket and shopping and trying not to be recognized," said Jackson. "That’s it. I am the cook in the family . . . I have to go to the grocery store because I know what I need. Back when I was doing both sports, that got a little hectic going to the supermarket in Kansas City, going to the supermarket in Los Angeles. That was about it. Everything else was just fine."
"The hardest thing about playing two sports at a high level was going to the supermarket and trying not to be recognized. Everything else was just fine."
Due to his connection with the Heisman Trophy, it is not by coincidence that You Don't Know Bo will have its first showing right after the 2012 Heisman Trophy ceremony, also on ESPN.
The ESPN 30 for 30 film is loaded with footage supplied by MLB and NFL Films, as well as interviews with people who knew Jackson off the field and/or played with him. However, according to Michael Bonfiglio, who directed You Don't Know Bo, it appeared for a time that Jackson himself would not be involved with bringing his story to the screen.
"When we initially started, it wasn't clear whether or not we'd have his participation," said Bonfiglio. "I think we had planned to move forward with the film with or without his participation because the story could be told without him. But obviously having him be part of it just took it to a completely different level."
According to Jackson, "My first concern was how much time was this going to take up, because I’m busy [with my family and business interests]. But once they told me about the time frame that they needed me, I restructured my schedule so I could allow them to have that time with me.
"But as far as everything else, I love my privacy. The people who are in the film talking are the people who did all of the work," Jackson said. "I just one day went and sat down for an hour or so and I talked, I answered questions, and I left and went back home and did what I was doing. So it really wasn’t that hard for me."
Among the highlights of Jackson's pro careers that will be seen in the film:
• Leaping over the top of the Alabama defensive line from three yards out as time expired to score the winning touchdown for Auburn in the 1982 Iron Bowl.
• Steam-rolling over Seattle Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth en route to scoring a touchdown during a 1987 Monday Night Football game.
• Outrunning the Seahawks' defense for a 92-year touchdown in that same game. Jackson finished the game with 221 yards rushing and three TDs.
• "Climbing" the outfield wall and running parallel to the ground after making a catch in left field in 1990 against the Baltimore Orioles.
• Making a catch in full stride on the warning track in left field, then stopping and throwing a strike to the catcher, who in turn tagged out a bewildered Harold Reynolds, who never expected the ball to be thrown.
The one sports moment that Jackson himself recalls with most pride was his first at-bat with the White Sox after hip replacement surgery and rehab kept him off the field for a full season. Jackson's mother had passed away before that, and he said he promised he'd get a hit for her in his first at-bat. It turned out to be a home run.
Jackson, who still works with Nike, downplays the impact that his "Bo Know" campaign, which supported the release of a Bo Jackson signature cross-training sports shoe, had on marketing and Nike, both of which were substantial. Nike has revisited the product with updated lines on several occasions, most recently this year via the Jackson-endorsed Nike Air Trainer SC.
The original campaign was anchored by a series of commercials that played off of Jackson's two-sport career by having him attempt to also try golf, hockey, tennis, auto racing, competing against such other über-athletes/Nike endorsers as Michael Jordan, Kirk Gibson, John McEnroe and Wayne Gretzky.
In the initial spot, he even tries to play guitar with Bo Diddley, which he fails to accomplish. That leads the legendary musician to remark, "Bo, you don't know Diddley." In a follow-up spot, Jackson has learned how to play the guitar, inspiring Diddley to exclaim, "Bo, you do know Diddley!"
Jackson, who lives with his family in a suburb of Chicago, said he is happy with the way the film turned out, but is happier to have successfully moved on with his life.
"My wife and I sat in the kitchen and watched it on her laptop," he said of You Don't Know Bo. "It was nice. It was very, very nice. I had my fun in the sun. I would not change a thing in my life of sports."
Photos: ESPN Films
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